The phrase "knowledge is power" has become such a cliché, it's easy to dismiss its truth. We sometimes forget just how crucial knowledge is for culture, society and, of course, business. 

Accumulated organizational knowledge is called corporate memory. Corporate memory is one of the key pillars of a company’s culture, says management consultant Jeffrey Phillips. In his award-winning blog, Innovate on Purpose, Phillips states, “Corporate culture exists at the intersection of corporate memory, corporate history, business context and operational effectiveness.” 

When companies make use of corporate memory they tap into an incredible potential which can foster innovation and support well-aligned execution. 

The few modern studies on the subject have uncovered just how important corporate memory is, with researchers noting that “knowledge is now the organization’s most valuable resource” (pdf). So why is it so hard to prevent corporate amnesia? 

With Baby Boomers set to retire en masse and younger workers job-hopping at a frenetic pace, preserving corporate memory has become a matter of urgency for enterprises. Many people, regardless of their age, want more job flexibility. At the same time, companies are looking to improve agility by bringing in specialists and freelancers when and where they are needed. 

All these dynamics present another challenge — how to use your corporate memory and all the information that comes with it. Employees are overwhelmed by massive amounts of data flowing through the fire hose. Their task is to digest and glean insights from this data, while at the same time working with more and more collaborators outside the traditional four walls of their organization.

The Causes of Corporate Amnesia

1. Turnover

The opposite of corporate memory is corporate amnesia. It can happen when older workers retire, younger ones seek greener pastures or when gradual shifts in organizational focus — often caused by corporate amnesia itself — destine previously-successful training initiatives to a dusty storeroom shelf. 

Memory loss is so insidious it often leaves even new employees feeling untethered, which can lead to yet more churn and a further acceleration of organizational drift and institutional brain drain.

2. Data overload

Stopping brain drain is just one part of the corporate amnesia problem. With the amount of digital data worldwide set to explode to 44 zettabytes (44 trillion gigabytes) by 2020 — ten times the amount that existed in 2013 — finding new and effective ways to disseminate and organize data’s contribution to corporate knowledge is as crucial as retaining it. 

Like a river crashing against an aging dam, the sheer volume of information is causing it to spill out of legacy systems and data storage devices from a thousand cracks. That’s forcing workers to deal with a tidal wave of disconnected, out-of-context information and pushing businesses to upgrade systems and revise antiquated policies and procedures.

3. The distribution of knowledge

Another piece of the corporate amnesia puzzle is the rise of workplace flexibility. Today, more than a third of employees telecommute at least part time

While remote work can be a boon for companies looking to save on real estate and for workers pursuing work-life balance, it can also be a lonely affair — which means corporate memory is no longer shared in the traditional ways. 

Gone are some of the key places workers once went to accumulate important knowledge. In many companies, the days of gossiping with coworkers around the watercooler or discussing strategy over sandwiches in the employee breakroom seem as ancient history as the office fax machine.

Not only does work happen outside of the office, increasingly it’s happening between experts from outside of the company. Modern organizations regularly collaborate with a cast of characters that includes partners, contractors, freelancers and even customers. For example, a pharmaceutical company must work with outside academic researchers, supply chain partners and distributors while navigating a complex network of government regulations in order to bring a new drug to market. 

Reining in Brain Drain

New technology is available to help both organizations suffering from corporate amnesia and those trying to prevent it. CIOs are turning to their existing intranets and finding ways to modernize them as a means of preserving corporate memory. 

In one recent study conducted by professor Paul Leonardi from the University of California, Santa Barbara, researchers found that enterprise social networking technologies increased workers’ metaknowledge, the knowledge of “who knows what” and “who knows whom,” within an organization. After just six months of using an interactive intranet, employees’ understanding of who-knows-what improved 31 percent. Even more stunning, subjects experienced a whopping 88 percent increase in metaknowledge of who-knows-whom versus the control group

The study found that the technology triggered workers’ “ambient awareness” — the unconscious acquisition of knowledge gleaned from observing communications between other coworkers and teams. In one real-world example, a CMO at a large telecommunications company used an interactive intranet to identify another group in product development that was working on a similar problem. By combining the talent and eliminating redundancies, the CMO saved the company millions of dollars.

Contextualizing Data

One of the other startling findings in the study is that subjects didn't even realize they were absorbing these incredible insights about colleagues’ knowledge and connections — they simply were. That kind of ambient awareness comes in handy when workers are awash in data, as they are today, and can help mitigate the decline in knowledge passed around at the office watercooler. 

While cloud technologies are increasingly obliterating storage restrictions, hub platforms are handling the heavy lifting of data dissemination. By using new artificial intelligence technologies to help contextualize information, intranets can make those who-knows-what and who-knows-whom connections happen even faster, and help people find and reuse knowledge in the instant they need it. 

The Invisible Workplace

With these solutions, when workers need to apply the corporate memory they’ve picked up, it is immediately accessible. They can capture that insight to enrich the team or cross-organization interactions they have every day as they get work done, wherever they are. 

Today’s interactive intranets are designed around people rather than a document, process or task and integrate with the tools they already use, so employees can work in their own ways, anywhere. And as a result, corporate memory can be preserved and transferred seamlessly throughout the organization.

Over the past several years, the traditional company intranet has morphed from a static homepage into a knowledge-sharing and retention machine that can unlock latent business value. That means that, in addition to acting as a digital hub for company-wide collaboration and creation, modern intranets get to the heart of understanding and utilizing corporate memory to reduce duplication and increase innovation. 

In a way, these technologies are corporate memory. That’s important, because in today’s competitive business environment, knowledge isn’t simply power — it is everything.